How to amplify minority points of view

I wrote earlier about the “Rule of Three”, the idea that in a group setting that it takes the presence of at least three members of a marginalized sector to make them feel comfortable enough to speak up. But even then, it may take a conscious effort on their part to break through the dominance of the majority group.

This article describes a strategy adopted by some women in the Obama administration to do just that, because in general White House administrations are fully of ambitious males eager to be noticed who tend to push aside everyone else.

When President Obama took office, two-thirds of his top aides were men. Women complained of having to elbow their way into important meetings. And when they got in, their voices were sometimes ignored.

So female staffers adopted a meeting strategy they called “amplification”: When a woman made a key point, other women would repeat it, giving credit to its author. This forced the men in the room to recognize the contribution — and denied them the chance to claim the idea as their own.

“We just started doing it, and made a purpose of doing it. It was an everyday thing,” said one former Obama aide who requested anonymity to speak frankly. Obama noticed, she and others said, and began calling more often on women and junior aides.

Even if you are not a member of a marginalized group, you can aid in this amplification process. I have been the chair of countless meetings and the teacher in a many classrooms and thus had some control over the flow of the discussions in that setting. I would try to use that influence to make sure that the ideas of people who might be hesitant to speak for whatever reason were not drowned out, by circling back to their ideas that had not been picked up on, saying “I want to get back to something X said a little while ago because it is important” and then that point would become the focus of the discussion.

It is hard for people who are naturally talkers in a group setting to realize how discouraging it can be for a quieter person to work up the courage to say something and then have it ignored. I recall a student in a lecture class of about 200 who seemed terminally shy. She would never speak up in class and would come to my office to ask questions. Even then, she would peer cautiously around my door and ask if I was available to speak with her, whole attitude being like a fawn that was ready to run away if I should raise my voice at her, which of course I never did. Many of her questions were really good and I would suggest to her that she should ask them during class so that the whole class would benefit but she would just smile.

Then one day towards the end of the semester, I was startled to see her raise her hand in class. Inside my head I said “Yes! Finally!” but on the outside I treated it as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to speak. It was great to see her becoming more confident.


  1. kestrel says

    Having been on the other side of this, I have to say it’s absolutely incredible when your voice, which is typically ignored, gets amplified or acknowledged like this.

    I’m involved in a project for the renovation of a very old dam. The engineer had presented our flood analysis and I noticed the map was not accurate: I brought that up and got kind of insistent about it, but then let it drop because my voice has always been ignored. This turned out to be a significant problem though, the engineer corrected the map and it will save the project half a million dollars. I fully expected everyone to immediately forget who had brought that up, but to my complete astonishment, it has now been pointed out several times that I was the one who noticed that issue.

    So to anyone who does this: thank you. You have no idea how great it feels to finally be heard.

  2. Johnny Vector says

    Agreed, and thank you for doing that, Mano. I try to always use the name of whoever initiates an idea that I want to keep going with. If you want people to participate in figuring things out, that’s the absolute best way to do so. (And if you don’t, why are they there?)

    I first noticed this on the other side of the interaction, in college German class, when I realized that it never got old to get a joyful genau! from the teacher when I got something right. Probably the only reason I even remember what the word means (“exactly”).

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